Why I didn’t shake Edward Acton’s hand
The grad season is upon us: the time for sweaty palms, nervous, tipsy grins and synthetic wizard robes. Thousands of third year students graduated last week amidst cheers and storms of applause celebrating three years of (mostly) hard graft. Like the rest, I was pleased that it was all over and happy that I could finally get my hands on a tangible recognition of all that work. There was one small hurdle though: the small matter of a certain pompous ceremony. I’m not sure there are many people who relish standing in a billowing Harry Potter gown in front of 800 people, but looking like a prat was lower on my agenda than it might otherwise have been. Sure, I was worried that I might stack it up the stairs or walk off the stage by the wrong exit, but more than anything I was rehearsing what I was going to say to the man I would have to refuse to shake hands with before collecting my certificate. Unfortunately for me, my ceremony was presided over by Edward Acton, the outgoing Vice Chancellor of UEA who will be replaced by David Richardson this coming September. In the run-up to this day, I’d gladly, and perhaps misguidedly, trilled that I would refuse to shake the hand of a man who had overseen such a shocking and deplorable track record of management during the course of my university career. Now, I had to stick to my guns and actually do it.
Here’s the back story: spurred by the climate of austerity, UEA management has jumped on the bandwagon and embraced the ConDem government’s decision to raise the tuition fee cap to £9000 a year. Meanwhile, funding for the arts has been slashed dramatically, and diverted to more revenue-intensive schools (i.e. the ones that make them money, like the business school). The closure of the School of Music is possibly the most deplorable and reprehensible act of Acton’s management stint (in my time at least), and epitomises the attitude of managers high up in the university – if it doesn’t make money, cut it. It’s merely a symptom of a wider trend of marketisation and commodification of higher education, forced by free market government policy and liberalism. The recent decision to hike accommodation fees for new students beginning in 2014/15 smacks of further attempts to squeeze yet more money out of already heavily indebted students. Acton’s period as VC of the university has seen a liberalised approach that seeks to increase income from students and cut supposedly ‘unnecessary’ expenditure. One such example of this is the way in which university management keeps some staff members on temporary contracts, rather than granting longer-term permanent contracts with the associated benefits (read expenditure) such as sick pay, holiday, and pensions. Some people may remember the UCU strike that threatened to jeopardise this whole glorious week of pomp and rigour – third year students would not have been able to graduate if lecturers wouldn’t mark scripts. They were striking over a real-terms pay cut of 13% since 2008, as the university hadn’t raised wages in line with inflation. In the end, they settled for a 2% pay rise, which although a small victory, did not satisfy many of their demands, and is certainly not sustainable into the future.
I’m not a naturally confrontational person (though I’m sure there will be many raised eyebrows at that statement) and the thought of saying to his face that I thought he was a twat (obviously more eloquently) was giving me the kind of butterflies you wouldn’t believe. There I was, standing in the hushed and silent corridor with my political convictions and better instincts wrestling uneasily in my guts, while the surnames being read out on the list were marching steadily towards G and I was inching closer to the stage. Finally it was decision time: there he was, looking like a medieval birdman, resplendent in squishy orange, and suddenly I was walking up the stairs and determinedly keeping my hands clasped, jaw set, avoiding the outstretched hand. He looked flustered and embarrassed when he realised that I wasn’t going to shake it “due to his deplorable management of the last three years” but it was over almost before it began and he had 180 other graduands to attend to. My heart was going like the clappers as I collected my certificate and walked my jelly legs back down the aisle, but I was pleased I hadn’t flaked out on my own morals. The speech that closed the ceremony seemed to seal the deal – Philip Lowe, veteran multi-disciplinarian who received an honorary degree from ENV, spoke of lateral thinking and staying true to ones’ beliefs. It seemed to confirm everything, and I went off feeling enlarged with self-righteousness to drink as much free champagne as I could without bubbles coming out of my nose.